Recipe Writing: Spontaneity vs. Instruction?

I’m new to recipe writing. I am also the kind of cook who “adds a bit of this” and “puts that in too.” Generally I have no idea what measurements I use when cooking. And I tend to change the ingredients often, which also alters the measure. When submitting to Food52 my strategy has been to write down what I fix for that particular dish, and to take precise measurements that appear to be an approximation of what I add when I am cooking for myself. Is this a good approach? Or is there a general philosophy for recipe writing that I am not applying to my process? I’d love some thoughts or advice. Thanks!

  • Posted by: checker
  • March 27, 2011


Bevi April 3, 2011
What a great question. I was taught to cook by people who for the most part did not precisely measure ingredients. When I submit a recipe, it's a struggle because I also have to play with exact measurements that require me to work backward, as it were.
For me, a benefit of studying this site has been discovering how precise measurements of some ingredients like spices and other inclusions affect the outcome of a recipe.
macollins March 31, 2011
I too have not submitted a recipe because I haven't written down what I do...even when I bake I tend keep it in my head or at best add post-it notes to existing recipes that have inspired something different. Bad for getting consistent results, I know.

Thinking about getting into the habit of making useful notes and then documenting recipes that work so that they can be shared, a couple of weeks ago I came across a relatively succinct checklist/suggestion at

In terms of process, there appears to be a book on this genre out there...The Recipe Writer's Handbook, published by Wiley. I haven't gotten around to checking it out of the library so I can't recommend it but you never know, it might have tips that are useful.
checker March 28, 2011
It's nice to know that other people struggle with this issue. Every time I submit a recipe I think, "when I make this is is wonderful, what if I didn't get the measurements right and it is terrible." It is a learning process, and these comments help. Thank you!
phyllis March 28, 2011
Thanks for your question @checker. I struggle with the same issues. I almost never cook a recipe the same way twice. This is a problem for one of my daughter's who is a very black & white cook, so I try to write down measurements for her, with strict instructions on what can be omitted/added, etc. I like the creativity of cooking my way. I agree with all of the comments. Thanks!!
dawnviola March 27, 2011
@checker -- you're definitely not alone in your style of cooking (which is also my favorite way to cook!) You should check out the book Ratio by Michael Ruhlman, and The Improvisational Cook -- both have dedicated their book subject to cooking without a set recipe :-)
checker March 27, 2011
Thank you for all the answers everyone. It sounds like, as with craft of cooking, I just need to be observant and adaptable when it comes to creating the written recipe. (If you can't tell from this, I majored in English with a Creative Writing Poetry focus, and I can be a little preoccupied with the writing process.) Great advice!
boulangere March 27, 2011
What a lovely question. I agree with all three cooks and writers above, all of whose writings and recipes I read often. It is important for the users of recipes to have clear instructions and measurements, but I also try to indicate where they have some leeway to substitute something, or increase/decrease a measurement. And I love the stories behind recipes! Anyone can open a book or pull up a web page and follow a recipe; foods which come from someone's life and become part of someone else's are so much more than recipes. Have fun with this!
Greenstuff March 27, 2011
Great question. I think your general approach is right for food52. I haven't uploaded recipes to food52, because my approach is most often to research a topic and then cook on my own. To submit as many recipes as a lot of people in this community manage to do, I'd have to have someone follow me around measuring. AJ's suggestion of including alternates can only take you so far. I admire your discipline if you can make yourself record measurements, even knowing that you probably wouldn't do it exactly the same each time. As for sentimentality, I think that one of the most important aspect of cooking is story-telling. When we're sharing food, we're sharing our stories. Sometimes, the food52 recipes I like least (precious few!) seem a little rootless--created within the week and written down without an enriching story behind them. Best of luck to you as you find your voice.
drbabs March 27, 2011
I mostly agree with AJ and think your approach is excellent. Recipe writing is both art and science, and clear instructions make life easier for those who use the recipes. I admire careful writing and exact measurements, especially in baking, but really anywhere that they're used. I know I can adjust to my taste. I recently tested 3 recipes, and when I do that, I follow the instructions to the letter as much as possible. I liked all three, but would have changed all of them a bit if I weren't testing. One of them left an ingredient out of the instructions, and I forgot to add it. It was still good, but I gave the writer feedback to edit the recipe. I am guilty of being a sentimentalist-- a lot of my recipes come from family favorites and I frequently share (overshare?) stories about my family--mostly because I love this community and feel like I want to share. (I also love reading everyone else's stories and spend way too much time on the site doing that.) I do think it's better to give precise instructions for measurement and offer the opportunity to make variations (like maybe you've made it a few times and changed some spices or something--you could share that. Sounds to me like you're doing a great job.
AntoniaJames March 27, 2011
I really don't know much about this from a writing perspective, but as a reader and user of recipes, I appreciate it when the author gives specific information about variations or substitutions, and what can be omitted, and with what effect. Also, although I know a breezy writing style is very much in vogue these days (especially the constant use of action verbs), I find them silly and distracting. They make it seem like either the writer is trying too hard, or the writer is dumbing down the recipe. I know what it means to "beat well," so just saying that works best for me. Descriptions of what the end product of a step is supposed to look like visually, on the other hand (e.g., "beat until frothy," or, "beat until the eggs and sugar are a pale lemon color"), especially in baking, I find helpful. And I find sentimentality to be not just tiresome, but tedious. But that's just me. I actually find the level of commentary and instruction in the old Joy of Cooking editions to be just about right, by the way. And I think your approach of actually measuring items precisely, and writing them down so you can share them here is a great idea, especially given the international readership, and the difficulties people who are not native speakers -- as well as people who don't cook often, or haven't enough experience to be able to use their own judgment and common sense -- might have with non-standard expressions of measurement. Good question, though. ;o)
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